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'American Idol': Get to Know Season 12's Top 10 Guys

In their first interviews since making the Top 20 cut, the male finalists talk to THR about their influences, "Idol" history and false starts, among other topics.

American Idol season 12 Top 10 guys L
Michael Becker / Fox
From left: Paul Jolley, Charlie Askew, Devin Velez, Elijah Liu, Curtis Finch, Burnell Taylor, Nick Boddington, Cortez Shaw, Lazaro Arbos and Vincent Powell

During rehearsals for American Idol at the Mirage Hotel’s Love Theatre, home to Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles show Love in Las Vegas, season 12's top 10 guys took some time backstage to hang with The Hollywood Reporter. Among the topics discussed: their road to the finals, influences and brushes with Idols past.  

Lazaro Arbos (@LazaroAI12)

Growing up in Cuba, Arbos listened to music sitting with his mother on the sofa in their house. He’d sing along to the songs he heard on the radio, but he wasn’t hearing the same artists that children of his age were listening to just 90 miles away in America. “They don’t let U.S. culture impact us,” he explains. “When I came to the United States, I found out who Mariah Carey was and who Whitney Houston was. They’d been around for a long time and they were huge and I didn’t know who they were. I started to discover them at the age of nine.”

Now 21 and a resident of Naples, Fla., Arbos’ first time singing in public was just four years ago, when he competed in a talent show on a local television station. He performed five songs and won the first prize of $5,000.

Arbus started watching American Idol during season eight because he had already met one of the contestants. “Allison Iraheta did a TV show where I live.” Prior to competing on Idol, Iraheta was a contestant on Telemundo’s Quinceañera when she was, appropriately, 15. Coincidentally, Arbos was introduced to another season eight contestant just last week. “I got to meet Adam Lambert. His duet with Allison on ‘Slow Ride’ was the best duet that has ever been on Idol.

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Arbos already has a large fan following. Last week in Las Vegas, when he walked out on stage he received the loudest applause from the audience inside the Love Theatre at the Mirage Hotel. And immediately after his interview with THR in a backstage dressing room, he found it difficult to walk through the casino without being stopped by fans for photographs. “I’ve been a fan of Mariah and now her fans follow me. That has shocked me the most. A lot of Gaga’s ‘monsters’ follow me as well, and I love her, so that’s cool.”

One “fan” that has contacted Arbos through Twitter is the runner-up of season one of Pop Idol in the U.K. Gareth Gates made an immediate impression during that inaugural season because, like Arbos, he had a stutter. During his audition, it took him a full minute to say his name. But, also like Arbos, that stutter disappeared when he sang. Now Gates is lending support to the young man from Cuba who has already won the hearts of millions of viewers.

Charlie Askew (@CharlieAI12)

Askew, 18, tried out for American Idol last year even though he had only seen bits and pieces of the show. “Last season was the first I watched all the way through. After I watched a full season and had a feel for how the show was run, I decided to come back this year with a vengeance.”

Askew and his father thought being on Idol would be a good launchpad and would provide exposure. “Winning wasn’t the main goal,” Askew says of his first audition. When he tried out for season 11 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Askew sang a couple of Michael Jackson songs -- “Thriller” and “P.Y.T.” He recalls, “It didn’t go over too well I knew I wasn’t ready when I walked in there. I never get that nervous before an audition -- normally. My knees were knocking together and I cracked on a high note. I’m much more self-aware this year and have a much greater sense of who I am and what kind of artist I want to be.”

Although he sang a couple of Michael Jackson songs last year, Askew’s musical influences are more in the classic rock vein. “I grew up on the Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, the Band, John Prine, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Queen. Led Zeppelin is my all-time favorite band. As far as contemporary, I love Bruno Mars. He’s an absolute star.” Given his musical favorites, it’s no surprise when Askew says, “My parents had a huge record collection. We had tons of cassettes, vinyl and CDs.”

The resident of Little Rock, Ark., tells THR he has been playing piano since he was five. “I had a few minor lessons at first. I learned basic theory, like the names and the notes, and which one goes with which key, that’s easy enough. I really don’t read music, it’s all by ear, all self-taught. I didn’t discover until later that I had perfect pitch.”

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Nick Boddington (@NickBAI12)

The 27-year-old from Memphis first watched American Idol during the season one finale. “I saw a spread in a magazine about this singing talent competition and the people looked like professionals. They were getting their start and going for it and I wanted to do that. So ever since season one I’ve had it in my mind to audition and to be there one day. Finally, I’m here.”

Boddington was in high school during season one. He says, “The show encouraged me to pursue music because there aren’t that many ways to get in the business. American Idol is a really great platform.”

Like most of the other top 20 finalists in season 12, Boddington has tried out before. He auditioned in seasons three, eight and 11. “Last year I did ‘More Than Anyone’ by Gavin DeGraw and ‘Sunday Morning’ by Maroon 5. Randy Jackson said they weren’t sure if I was the American Idol. They ended up cutting me in Vegas. The group round wasn’t my best. I came back this year and Randy said, ‘I remember you, I loved you last year and I love you even more this time.’ This year I sang another Gavin DeGraw song, ‘Sweeter.’ They reacted well and I got the other judges on my side. Hollywood week was a completely different experience than last year.”

Asked when he first became aware of music, Boddington responds, “I was really into movies when I was three years old. I would go see these films with my parents and I would somehow get the score wrapped up in my brain. I would go home and try to plunk it on the piano. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. But these melodies stuck with me. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in the movie business. At four I started taking piano lessons because my parents saw this passion. I’ve taken dance classes, piano lessons, vocal lessons, I’ve always wanted to perform and I’ve always wanted to make music in some kind of way.”

Curtis Finch, Jr. (@CurtisAI12)

The 25-year-old from St. Louis, Mo., started watching American Idol during season two and although he wasn’t eligible yet, he was inspired to audition by watching Ruben Studdard perform. “I always wanted to sing and I would go to the kitchen during the commercials and start to sing a random song and thought, ‘I wonder if the judges would say yes after hearing it.’ I’ve always wanted to audition for American Idol.” Finch auditioned the first time during season four and then tried again in season 11, when he made it to the top 70. He wasn’t discouraged. “The thing about dreams is that you never stop having them, so I’ve always wanted to follow them. I’ve always known that connected to a million nos will be that one yes that I need. I feel so blessed to be here. I’ve always felt like it’s my dream and if I’m really passionate about it, then I have to go after it because nobody’s going to pursue it but me.

Finch has been listening to music ever since he can remember. “My father used to travel singing in gospel quartet groups and then my mother would sing at church, so I followed suit. We’d be at church singing and when my father went to a gospel program after the regular Sunday morning service, I would go with him because I was just so intrigued by music.” There was also secular music in the Finch home. “I’ve always loved that about my parents. We have a strong spiritual background, but music is music and as long as the music is talking about love and joy and sometimes pain and nothing provocative, my parents never had a problem with what we listened to.”

Asked to name his musical influences, Finch cites Studdard and Fantasia as well as Luther Vandross, the O’Jays, the Temptations and Angie Stone. “Those are the people that my parents would listen to. That’s why I’m so old school.”

Finch has been enjoying this season’s new panel of judges. “Standing in front of them was really a dream come true because a lot of people won’t get this opportunity, and I don’t take it lightly. I feel so blessed because Mariah has sold over 200 million albums. Nicki Minaj was nationally known even before she had her own album out. Keith Urban travels the world to sing and Randy Jackson has worked with artists all over the world. It’s an honor that my gift has been confirmed by people who have listened to music for a living.”

Paul Jolley (@PaulJolley@AI12)

He’s 23 now, but Jolley started watching American Idol when he was 12, during the series’ first season. “I was way too young to try out. When I was 16, I wanted to audition. I never made it past the first round; I wasn’t what they were looking for that year.” This year is a different story. “I did a show in Bowling Green, Ky., opening for Billy Dean. The local radio station people called me and said Idol was going to be in town the following week and they would love me to represent our city. So Idol came to Bowling Green on a bus tour and here I am.”

Jolley says his season 12 audition was a completely different experience from his first attempt. “There were about 1,500 people there, so it more personal than being in a big stadium. I couldn’t have asked for a better audition experience. I sang ‘House of the Rising Sun.’”

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Jolley also thinks this year was the right time for him to compete on Idol because he is a long-time fan of Keith Urban. “When I turned 16, I made a CD. Keith was a big influence on me and I put one of his songs, ‘I Wanna Love Somebody Like You,’ on my first album.” Jolley had another connection with Urban, when the country star played a show sponsored by Verizon in one of their store parking lots. “My brother is one of the main managers of Verizon in Nashville. So my brother was backstage and talked to Keith for a while and they were talking about me. Keith asked him, ‘What was your brother’s name?’ He said, ‘Paul Jolley. Don’t forget him.’”

Growing up, Jolley was influenced by his parents’ taste in music. “They listened to southern rock, and Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Prince. When I visited my grandparents, they played older country, like Dolly Parton, Travis Tritt, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.”

Elijah Liu (@ElijahAI12)

“The earliest memory I have of watching American Idol was season one when Kelly Clarkson won, back when I was seven,” says Liu, who still lives in the Rowland Heights, Calif. home where he has resided with his family his entire life. “My earliest memory of loving music, when I first realized it was going to be my passion, was at a family reunion. My uncle had been part of a mariachi band when he was younger. He pulled out his guitar and started strumming away and that piqued my interest early on.”

As a youngster, Liu didn’t buy records but says the radio was his best friend, and the closest thing to a vocal coach he ever had. “Growing up I listened to a lot of oldies, like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. Old school songs have always been a strong inspiration for me.”

Liu continued to watch Idol every year. “My favorite American Idol would have to be Carrie Underwood, because she is still selling records, she’s current and she’s living her dream. She’s really an inspiration.”

Liu first auditioned for season 11. “I was fortunate enough to make it to group round of Hollywood week, but this year I did a lot better.” Liu is also grateful for his family. “My whole family supports my dream and what I want to do with the rest of my life. They’re in support of me 100 per cent.”

Asked what his debut album might sound like, Liu says, “I am passionate about releasing an album on the urban pop side with soul and R&B influences. I do write songs. I’m also a musician. I play guitar, ukulele and piano.”

Vincent Powell (@VincentAI12)

“I’ve watched American Idol since the first season, when Kelly Clarkson won,” says Powell, 29. “The first season that I actually saw myself being on it is when Fantasia won and she did the winning song, ‘I Believe,’ and I was like ‘OMG.’ She was crying, we were crying, everybody was crying.”

Powell grew up in a musical family. “My brother is a singer and he studies composition, so he plays the piano. My mother is a singer also. She had a little group, but my mother worked for Southwestern Bell in Texas for 30 or 40 years. She retired and now she’s an elementary school teacher. So she’s a workaholic. I started singing around eight or nine in church. My father was a baseball coach, and I had three brothers, so I had to go through the sports thing, which I was good at. I thought it was fun while it lasted, but eventually I thought, ‘I’m not about to do this for the rest of my life,’ so that’s when I switched to music.

Powell and his brother work at the same mega-church in Houston. “There are about 10,000 members, so it’s a big task. We are over the music department. I’m over the praise and worship team, the children and the youth and he’s the worship pastor. I was there four years and I actually brought him but he’s over me. He’s the big boss.”

Powell has his favorite gospel artists, including the Clark Sisters and Kim Burrell, but he has also listened to secular music his entire life. “Tina Turner is one of my favorite singers. Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle. In high school, I was in the madrigal choir, so I started learning more classical and the foundation of music, where it came from. Then I went to music school and it was a whole different ball game. I started listening to people like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and then I studied jazz.

Powell is happy to be in the top 20 after auditioning for Idol six times. “I auditioned in New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta and then back to Houston last year. I made it to Hollywood, but got cut in the rooms. But this year, it’s a good feeling considering I’ve lived in my car and experienced the whole starving artist life.”

Powell has been a background vocaist, working with Whitney Houston, LeToya Luckett and Scarface. He’s looking forward to recording his first secular album, though he has already released three Christian albums and an EP.

Burnell Taylor (@BurnellAI12)

Taylor, a 19-year-old resident of New Orleans, started watching American Idol during season three, because of Fantasia. “She was outstanding, so you had no other choice but to watch it. I was a little young to watch the first season.”

Taylor first auditioned in 2010. “It didn’t go as well,” he says, “but I believe everybody has a time and a calling for their life and for their dreams because the dreams are designed before they’re actually accomplished. So I knew my moment was going to come. Now that it’s here, I’m ready to just live in the moment.”

Taylor started singing when he was young but didn’t realize then how passionate he was about music. “After Hurricane Katrina, I discovered that I really knew how to sing. I recognized it.” THR asked Taylor how he came to that realization and he elaborated, “I went to school in Baton Rouge and they had a talent show and I thought, “Maybe I should get in it,” but I had no idea that I would get as far as I got. So I’m thankful for that platform for me to realize that I did have a gift.”

The young man who cites Whitney Houston, Kelly Price and Boyz II Men as his musical influences has already experienced what it’s like to have fans. “I went to American Eagle in the mall in New Orleans and was on the phone with one of the contestants and I said, ‘I’m trying to get clothes together because I want to look presentable when I’m singing,’ and this girl flipped out. She said, ‘Are you Burnell? Are you Burnell? Oh my God, oh my God!’ And it was still new to me, so I didn’t know how to react to it. I was a little shy. I just said, ‘Yeah, it’s me.’ But I love it.”

Cortez Shaw (@CortezAI12)

Shaw was 11 when he watched the first season of American Idol with his mother, brother and friends who would come over to their home in Dallas. THR asked him if he was musical even then. “At 11 years old?” he replies. “I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I was 11, doing kid things.”

Pressed on the subject, Shaw reveals, “I realized I could sing at about seven years old. I used to perform in church. I had my first solo performance. I was so nervous. I remember the women in the church standing up and screaming and yelling. I thought, ‘I like this. I have to get more of this.’”

Five years after watching season one, the first year he was eligible, Shaw tried out when Idol auditions were held in his hometown. There was just one problem. “I forgot my birth certificate at home. So I waited and came back four years later when I was 20.” Why didn’t Shaw try again when he was 17? “At such a young age, I don’t think I was ready. I’ve learned a lot about the industry and the music scene. Back then, I was like a deer in the headlights. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

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On his second try, Shaw made the top 40 and then was sent home. “When I first got eliminated, it didn’t hit me. But when I got home, I thought, ‘Oh man, I didn’t make it,’ but I definitely didn’t let it take me down. I used it to push me forward. In life, you hear a thousand nos before you hear a yes and that yes sometimes is like the greatest yes of your life, so never give up.”

Shaw was still new to music when he was watching that first season of Idol.  “I grew up in a very strict home. My mom is very loving, but I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t listen to the radio, anything other than Christian music.” Shaw was 10 when he heard an album by Brandy. “Her parents were kind of religious, so my mom let me listen to her and then it was, ‘Let me hear this person and this person.’ So when I was 12 years old, I was finally able to hear the world of music.”

When he did discover secular music, he was allowed access to his mother’s record collection. “I grew up with a lot of R&B. My mom would play Mary J. Blige nonstop. She liked Sade. And my mom is a huge fan of music from the U.K. She was a big Elton John fan. She liked Sting. She liked U2. She liked a lot of people.”

As much as Shaw loved music, he was also a huge sports fan and wanted to be a football player. He was active in the sport from childhood until his junior year in high school, realizing that his heart was in music.

His favorite Idols are Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Adam Lambert. He is already following in their footsteps when it comes to being recognized in public. “I’m not used to this yet, but it has happened quite a bit. The weirdest one happened when I was in a restroom using the urinal and a guy next to me taps me on the shoulder. He said, ‘Are you Cortez?’ I said, ‘Yeah’ and he starts recording me on his phone. I couldn’t even say anything, I was laughing so hard.”

Devin Velez (@DevinAI12)

“I’ve watched every single episode of American Idol since season one. I can tell you all the winners. I can tell you all the songs everybody sang. I’ve seen it all,” says 19-year-old Velez.

Even though he was only eight during that first season, Velez already knew what he wanted to do. “I started singing when I was two. I sang ‘Happy Birthday Jesus’ on Easter in this little red suit jacket. I was really small. After Idol started, I looked at my mom and said, ‘I want to do that, I want to be a star.’ Through singing more and more at church and at school, I finally made it my dream and now I’m here pushing for it.”

Growing up, Velez mostly listened to Christian music but also loved rock, jazz, R&B and gospel. “I love the meaning behind those songs and those artists. [When I sing] I want you to be touched by the words.”

Unlike most of the other finalists in this season’s top 20, Velez had not tried out for Idol until this year. “I was thinking of auditioning last year but I felt that I wasn’t ready.”  Once he heard the Idol auditions were coming to his hometown of Chicago, Velez started preparing.  “I got a vocal coach immediately and was practicing twice a week with her. It helped. I was learning techniques and breathing.” For the judges, Velez performed “Cry Me a River,” a song he knew from Michael Bublé’s album. The panel asked him to try a different song. “I sang, “I Just Call You Mine” by Martina McBride. So it was a little countrier and they said, ‘okay, no.’ Mariah Carey said, ‘It says here you’re Hispanic.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She asked if I could sing something in Spanish. I ended up pulling a song out of my hat that I knew in Spanish by Gloria Estefan. Mariah said, ‘This is going to be your special weapon.’ I’ve been able to throw in a little Spanish, but I don’t want to be predictable.”

Velez has already been through one of the most dramatic moments of season 12, facing off against returning contestant Johnny Keyser during the Sudden Death round in Las Vegas. “I was sweating bullets,” says Velez. “I haven’t been nervous yet on the stage but I was as nervous as it gets. I would have gone home for Johnny. He sang amazingly that night. I still keep in contact, he’s a great guy.”

Twitter: @Idol_Worship